Tuesday, June 25, 2013


I avoided my blog for a few days out of embarrassment, or maybe just to avoid starting a post with the phrase, "You know, maybe some of us just weren't born to run." I thought once the pain subsided, I might feel better about my chances at PTL in two months. But no, no ... I still feel like a gimpy little deer who wandered into a tunnel only to see the lights of a fast-approaching freight train.

On Saturday, Beat and I headed out to Santa Cruz for the San Lorenzo River 50K. Beat had been sick all week and nearly stayed home, but I was feeling better than I had in a while. My training runs were going well again after a few weeks of somewhat mystifying respiratory and nausea issues, and I was feeling particularly strong during bike rides. Confidence levels were still low, but I was getting there. At least I felt confident that I had the strength to bust out 31 miles.

But at mile 2.5, I went down. There was a brief distraction from a group of six or seven who were  passing on a short climb, and before I even realized that I had hooked my foot on a rock, I was face down in the dirt. This happens to me a lot. Why? Because I don't lift my feet high enough, I guess. Beat calls it "slurring your feet." He tells me I need to work on my technique. I frequently focus on correcting bad habits, but fatigue and distraction seem to unravel any and all re-education efforts. It seems my natural (bad) inclinations will always overrule my better intentions.

A woman stopped to help me up and I took off at top speed up the trail as blood streamed from my right elbow and knee. It was a slow-moving crash, but it ended in a jumble of rocks that punched a number of impressive bruises into my body. And even though my right side slapped the rocks like a dead fish, my left knee was particularly painful. A large goose egg lump formed over the inside end of the femur, and swelling built around the knee cap. I could feel the joint stiffening up and knew if I stopped moving it would probably freeze entirely. I needed to at least wait for the initial impact fade before I let that happen, so I kept running.

The trail crossed the thigh-deep San Lorenzo river, and I took advantage of the crossing to wash the dirt and blood off my limbs. The cold water felt fantastic, but as soon as we started climbing out of the river, I could feel endorphins fading, replaced by blunt pain. It seemed to be simple soft-tissue bruising rather than something more serious, and I couldn't decide what to do. Call it an education in pain management and continue running? Walk out the first leg of the race and stop at 30 kilometers? Turn around right there, DNF another race, and risk a full-blown crisis of confidence? I suspected that my knee could handle this little setback just fine, but my morale was more fragile.

It's funny that I didn't want to face a DNF. I never wanted to one of those types of runners, gutting out a race with an injury just to say I finished the thing. Deep down, I didn't really care. But I also didn't believe I was seriously injured — at least not enough to convince myself that continuing would do more harm. I was already banged up, so what did it matter if I ran or stopped? One thing I knew, however, was that I was in a moderate amount of pain, and it was getting worse, not better.

Beat, nice guy that he is, decided to stick with me during another race in which I fell apart less than 10 percent of the way in, even though he wasn't feeling well himself. I thought that continuing to jog and walk gently would help "unfreeze" my joint, but the goose egg hardened and the joint became more stiff, until I could no longer bend it more than a few measly degrees. I marched in place at aid stations to stave off full rigor mortis. "This is really kind of dumb," I thought. "I'm just dragging my leg along for a limpy jog and I'm not even getting much of a workout." I begged Beat for painkillers but he would only give me one more pill (wisely, of course, as I'd already taken the maximum dosage for the amount of time I'd be out there. Luckily I'd forgotten my own stash of Advil, as I am prone to caving into temptation.) He did encourage me to bail if I thought I was damaging my knee, and also cautioned that running with a limp risked damaging something else. Still, I felt justified in this latest experiment. After all, I'm pretty damn clumsy. If I want to continue propelling myself over rugged mountains, I'm going to have to learn to cope with a few bruises.

Beat joked about making up a phrase for the act of stubbornly ignoring gravity-induced injuries — "Pulling a Homer." "To the uninitiated, most would think that means sitting on the couch and eating a donut," he said. "But those who know the Homer family know that it means replacing grace with toughness." Heh heh.

After mile twelve my knee still wasn't willing to bend, so I made up my mind to drop at 30K point, reasoning that "running" this out was kind of pointless. But once I'd limped into the start/finish, I'd developed renewed resolve to see this thing through. Beat grabbed a bandage to tightly wrap my knee, and the compression did help me feel more stable. He then took off to run the last 20K at his own pace. As I suspected, the brief stop locked up the joint almost completely. Any bending at all caused a shock of pain. I peg-legged it up the climb and felt like an idiot encountering those who were finishing up the 30K, marathon, and 50K distances, because I was clearly going the wrong direction for a runner who was visibly limping. One of the 30K runners actually stopped and told me he would go back to an aid station about a mile away to get help. "Oh, I'll be fine, no problem, heh heh."

Surely enough, motion did eventually loosen up my knee. But the pain never went away, not even for a minute. I distracted myself with iPod songs that I put on repeat just to block out the passage of time. One of them was this kitschy death metal song, "Army of the Damned" by LoneWolf, which has been my go-to angry song for Alaska winter racing: "We run straight into a frozen hell; defeated by snow, blizzard and ice." It's silly but comforting background noise when I want to feel sorry for myself but need to keep in check that this self-imposed ridiculousness is my decision, and my responsibility. "Trapped in this white and cold cemetery; I can still walk; God seems to like me."

Still, I was openly angry when I arrived at the finish after a painful downhill stretch. I got a bit snippy with a medic who offered to help clean up my elbow and retrieve an ice pack for my knee. She was very nice and I'm grateful she offered to help (which I finally did accept), but I was in once of those embarrassed "don't look at me" moods. They were already cleaning up because I came in with 8:20 on the clock and these races have a nine-hour cutoff.

It was a beautiful course. The redwood forests are peaceful, the sandy hills are challenging, and the San Lorenzo River crossings are a lot of fun. I can't say I enjoyed myself much. I'm still contemplating what I was trying to do out there. On some level, I think I was trying to prove to myself again that I'm more than my fragile and awkward body, that determination can get me through some tough hours, and that pain does eventually get better (it did, on some level. I was running better in the final five miles than I had since I fell. Until the last downhill mile, that is, which was actually quite painful.)

Still, this series of bad races has trampled my mojo. I'm all for unknown challenges, but I prefer to have a little more faith in my known abilities. Part of my continuation strategy on Saturday involved promises to myself that in 2014 I would skip the ultramarathon circuit entirely and go back to my bike touring roots. Perhaps I'll still do that. But I have a lot of 2013 to get through yet.

I'm slowly gaining mobility back in my knee. I've been working on my range of motion and the swelling is going down, but I probably have a few more days at least before I'll be able to run, ride a bike, or walk normally. Still, I remain convinced that this was probably going to be the case whether I stopped at mile three or mile 31. Even mild knee contusions can be quite painful despite relatively shallow damage. But, alas, crisis of confidence. I finished the race, and it crept in anyway. 


  1. As much as I have been a proponent of the bike touring/travel writing aspect, don't get too down on yourself. If it was easy, everybody would do it.
    Get some rest, recovery, and regroup. Assess what your true motives are. Everybody goes through this at some point. I recently asked myself similar questions while engaging in a Strava challenge. "what is the point of chasing Internet glory"? Putting my head down, chasing miles, not seeing the sights....WTF?!
    You'll be fine. I think. ✌

  2. As you may know, I've been running for decades yet I fell last year on a trail. the aftermath of that still haunts me with mysterious pain. I guess the only thing I would say is, you want to be active forever and sometimes that means giving up short term goals to keep your eye on that prize.

  3. You rock, period, and are so inspiring to me, especially the part about dealing with pain. Selfishly, I do hope you go back to biking. I printed all of your Alaska bike and have read them many times. Cycling is much better for you than running. I was a fast runner, but I disliked it intensely. Have you ever considered a triathlon?

  4. PTL? Wow...I hope you are working on your climbing and hiking! pulling a homer is all part of the ultra experience. Hope you get well soon. Nice race report. thanks for sharing.

  5. "Pulling a Homer" will involve a new mental picture for me now. No more fat, balding, donut eating yellow guy. Replace with gimpy, hobbling, but otherwise uber- determined woman!
    Take care in the lead up to PTL. Confidence or not, it will be an awesome experience. Though, selfishly, I am looking forward to a return to the MTB. ;)

  6. Obviously finishing the race is more important to you than you are willing to admit. Have had a doctor look at it?

  7. I'm just going to toss this out there..(don't be angry people, PLEASE!)...but as a LONG time reader (since Juneau), I can recall the days when you wrote nearly every day about your cycling, and how happy you were nearly ALL the time, even on the hard days. And now that you have picked up this NEED to become a runner (or prove to yourself that you can maybe?), well...sadly, it just seems you have one issue after another (for a variety of reasons).

    I'm just going to toss this out there (and I'll prob have to take a hiatus from commenting here from the backlash)...but maybe, just MAYBE, running isn't your thing and never will be?

    There are things that happen to us (ie: things we do to ourselves, as in INJURIES) in our lives that cause long-term-damage, and you don't always recognize them at the time. Sadly, I have some regrets for my stubbornness years back, and I suffer daily for it, wishing I could hit the "redo" button.

    Maybe I just miss all the cycling posts, as you are obviously SO happy in that area of sports (and you are SO awesome at it btw...think of the TD and ITI among others). The long grueling cycling events just seem to be your "thing". Just my 2 cents worth...I'll go hide now.

    Heal fast Jill! (and keep the rubber side down, PLEASE!... whether that means bike tires or running shoes).

  8. Will – I thought PTL would be a good fit for me precisely because I'm a decent hiker even though I'm an awkward runner. I do steep climbs well and I can slog out a lot of long hours. I'd love to engage in more specific training but it's hard to come by here in the Bay area. I do incorporate the steeper trails close by, such as the Black Mountain Trail, into my training. I'm hoping to do some weekend mountain training in July.

    Jerry — no doctor yet. I was going to give it at least a few more days. I've knocked my knee plenty of times in bike crashes, so I have a sense of what is "normal" and what is "concerning." This feels normal, although annoying. I've been on the couch for three days now. Going to try some gentle spinning on the bike today.

    Matt — you bring up good points I intended to address in a blog post at some point. Why do I run? Because it's very hard for me, and yet it's attainable. Also, I had plenty of tough stretches during my Juneau days. It was certainly not all smiles and rainbows. Getting through the hard days is what makes the good days all the more satisfying.

    As for the long-term consequences of running — I have *always* been accident prone. Back when I lived in Idaho Falls, my co-workers gave me the nickname "Gimpy McStiff" because I frequently returned from my weekend with some kind of limp. And that was before started engaging in endurance cycling or running. Alaska was kind to me in this regard because it's snow-covered in the winter, mulchy and mossy in the summer, and my falls were much more forgiving. Living back down here in the land of loose dirt and rocks, I'm probably doomed to frequent higher-consequence crashes no matter what activity I engage in.

    Also, my cycling-only days were often shadowed by chronic knee pain that had been a problem ever since my cross-country bike tour, when I was 24 years old. Look at any Alaska-era photo (at least the ones where I'm not wrapped in six layers of clothing), and I'm probably wearing a knee brace. Running has dramatically improved my knee health, I believe because I'm more naturally building strength in my quad muscles. And although I love the motion of cycling so much that I can be happy on a stationary bike, also believe cycling is limiting. There are a lot of places wheels can't go that feet can. The entirety of the undoubtably gorgeous and compelling PTL route comes to mind.

    But yes, there's still a good chance that I'm going to plan some kind of bike tour for summer 2014 rather than a big running goal. 2013 was supposed to be a summer to push some boundaries. I'm definitely pushing them. These last few weeks have been all about admitting how much it hurts. Personal growth often does. :-)

  9. Last week, my wife took a nasty fall on her run around the neighborhood. It happened a mile and half from our apartment on her way to a 10 mile run, which is about half streets and half technical trails. The result: one knee the color and size of an eggplant, one bruised elbow and probably two broken ribs. She was so stunned that it took her a while to scramble off the ground, few people even stopped in their cars to ask if she was ok. She texted me that instead of turning back and returning home, she finished the run since Jill would have done the same.

  10. Ahhh Jill...personal growth is over-rated (says the pathetic guy who pretty much never pushes his boundaries).

    Are you tracking the Tour Divide this year? I was up in Davis for LIVESTRONG (with Fatty) over the weekend, and when I left Craig Stappler was in the lead...just checked back in and he's scratched, Mike Hall is the new leader and he's already in New Mexico! This race is SO awesome..(speaking of pushing boundaries...WOW!)

    I only started following this race when you did it. What an event! HUGE props to ANYBODY who even lines up at the start...it's certainly way beyond my pain thresh-hold! You all are a rare breed for sure!

  11. At least you've been running/exercising. I've just been getting fat. That will eventually require knee replacements. Yours will heal :-)

  12. Jan — Wow, that's hardcore. Her injuries sound significantly more painful than mine. I hope she heals up soon! Marketa has my respect; I have turned around from training runs and bike rides for *much* less than that.

    Matt — lots of Tour Divide following this year. I'm covering it for my halfpastdone.com blog and the response has been great so far. I'm even getting significantly more ad clicks so my obsessive race tracking can be filed away as work.

    Danni — You mean 50-mile trail races don't count as running/exercising? I'm effectively on that boat right now — weekend races with not much in between. I feel like I've been sick and/or injured since the week before Bryce, so a month ago. But thanks. I highly doubt you are getting fat. ;-)

  13. I bet you'll shoot this down because it isn't your thing, but I've found the most improvement in my form through speed training. One can't run at top speed with poor form, so it forces you to learn what that is. It doesn't have to be done in any formal way, just pick it up really fast on a flat trail where you don't stand much chance of tripping.

    And when you're fatigued in a race, that's when you have to actively think about your form and picking up your feet. Not much way around that one.

    Heal up soon!

  14. Thanks Karen. I don't disagree with you. It's funny because I was chatting extensively about this issue with Amy's sister while we were crewing for her at Western States. As it turns out, Amy takes a lot of trail diggers — she actually had her doctor lecture her about the frequency with which she breaks fingers. She took two falls in the early miles and WS and arrived at mile 30 with bloody knees and elbows. And Amy is fast — ran a 7:19 min-mile average in the 100K Worlds. I know I couldn't hold that pace for 5K, and it's doubly impressive what she's managed to do with her own awkward body. :-) That said, no speedwork for me until after I've (hopefully) survived my hiking races in August/September. But, like I said, I don't disagree that focused running exercises help foster better habits.

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